The 'debate' around Meg White's drumming says everything about the enduring sexism in rock music

Meg and Jack White, 2002
(Image credit: Tabatha Fireman/Redferns)

It’s 2023, and guess what? We’re somehow still talking about whether or not Meg White 'sucks'.

Two decades have passed since Freddy Jones - the spiky-haired pre-teen drummer in 2003's School of Rock film – declared, “She can’t drum!”, and this week, US journalist Lachlan Markay reignited the discourse about her technical ability.

In a now deleted tweet, Markay wrote: “The tragedy of The White Stripes is how great they would have been with a half-decent drummer. Yeah, yeah I’ve heard all the ‘but it’s a carefully crafted sound mannnn!’ takes. I’m sorry Meg White was terrible and no band is better for having shitty percussion.”

Markay’s expansion on the seemingly never-ending debate sent social media into a frenzy. Having since issued an apology and jokingly edited his Twitter bio to include the phrase, ‘Bad music take haver,’ he seems to have taken that backlash on the chin. But what may appear to be a harmless ‘hot take’ is actually indicative of rock’s enduring problem with sexism.

Meg White’s drumming style is undeniably simple. A soulful minimalism that emphasises an intuitive sense of time, not inexperience, it’s proof that simplicity doesn’t always equate to mediocrity. Indeed, punk has had men frothing at the mouths for decades over male drummers banging out simple beats, yet it’s never suggested that, say, the Sex Pistols would have soared higher if Paul Cook had thrown out his basic approach in favour of more technical flourishes. Whilst punk is showered with praise for its aggressive rhythmic simplicity, everything changes when you throw a woman into the mix.

When a man picks up an instrument, he instantly becomes 'A Musician', whereas women are required to jump through countless hoops to prove themselves worthy of such a title.

Witness the outcry after Phoebe Bridgers smashed her guitar to pieces during a performance on Saturday Night Live in 2021, for example. An inherently ‘punk’ action, The Clash’s Paul Simonon gained icon status after pummelling his instrument into the floor, whilst The Who’s Pete Townshend regularly broke guitars under the guise of ‘auto-destructive art’. Post Malone has even been smashing guitars during performances of his hit ‘rockstar’ since it’s 2017 release despite not even using the instrument - or any instrument - during said performance. 

However, when Bridgers subverted the trope by demolishing a Danelectro Dano ’56, late co-founder of The Byrds, David Crosby, went as far as branding the act ‘pathetic’. Whilst some may have simply felt passionately about the destruction of a $85 instrument - chances are it was just in the hands of the wrong person. 

It all comes down to the long-standing assumption that rock is a man’s world. Every so often, a woman may be lucky enough to bag herself a guest spot, but ultimately, she has to play by their rules. You’re either the groupie, the sweet, reserved vocalist, or if you’re in a band with a man – you’re there because you’re sleeping with them. Last month when British guitarist Sophie Lloyd was accused of having an affair with pop-punk star Machine Gun Kelly based on nothing except the fact that she's in his touring band, it was silly fan speculation, but speaks to the fact that when female musicians’ technical ability isn’t being called into question, their appearance, demeanour, and even their personal lives are being scrutinised. 

Last December, Paramore’s Hayley Williams confessed that she doesn’t “dare” play guitar on stage due to the sexist backlash she’d face, and no matter how far we’ve come in educating society on gender equality, rock still has a serious misogyny problem. With their musicianship grossly undermined at every turn, female musicians are facing double standards which Markay’s words only amplify. Sure, everyone loves a spicy take, but it’s time to stop pushing the idea that women can only be successful in music if they're carried by their male counterparts.

Let’s face it - Jack White would be the first to admit that those four Grammy wins don’t sit solely on his shoulders.

Freelance contributor